WTW Architects' collegial approach works within firm, with clients

| Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011

Confronted with a steep drop in architectural work about two years ago, the head of WTW Architects Inc. called all 65 employers together.

"We asked people if they would rather have a four-day week, take a pay cut or reduce the size of the staff," said Richard De Young, president of the North Shore-based firm.

The solution turned out to be a mix. During that summer, 20 of the 65 employees were let go, staff pay was reduced 12 percent and principals took a 25 percent pay cut. With fewer workers, the firm consolidated into just one of its two floors.

The collegial approach worked. WTW survived in what remains a downturn in the industry, revenue is stable and the firm has even started to hire again, adding two people recently.

"We didn't want to let people go in dribbles and drabs, because that creates tremendous uncertainty and fear among workers," said De Young, who joined the firm in 1976.

"We are creative people, but we are also running a business," he said. "And it's important to match income with staffing levels. Not all firms do that."

Founded in 1959, the firm is known largely for designing university housing, such as a project under way at Duquesne University, and student activity centers, such the one going up at the University of Houston.

WTW served as the local architect on Heinz Field, designing the interiors of the private boxes and the two club suites. The football stadium opened in September 2001.

Between 40 percent and 50 percent of its projects tend to be in Western Pennsylvania, and the rest are scattered across the country.

Other recent projects in this region include a new Dollar Bank branch nearing completion in Bethel Park, and new student housing and a renovated recreation center at California University of Pennsylvania finished last year in Washington County.

"WTW has developed an expertise in student unions, which was a very smart move, to kind of brand themselves in that way," said Anne Swager, executive director of the American Institute of Architects, Pittsburgh chapter.

"They've also been known as a firm that's been able to keep their profit margins low and still make money (because) they know how to operate lean," she said.

Swager said WTW has done well to weather a recession that continues to be felt in the architecture world because "there's still a credit crunch." It has directly hurt demand for design services in every sector, from retail to industrial to institutional, she said.

WTW employees who made concessions in 2009 had that pay restored in two stages by the end of last year in the form of bonuses and contributions to the 401(k) retirement plan, said De Young.

The firm approaches its clients in a collegial manner similar to how it consulted its staff about restructuring during the worst of the downturn.

"We did surveys and solicited student input about resident lifestyles to determine what they wanted to see in the building," said George Fecik, executive director of facilities management for Duquesne University.

Scheduled to open in time for the fall 2012 semester, the student residence will be 12 stories and house 430 beds. WTW designed the interior and exterior, as well as the surrounding landscaping. The $35 million project is "right on budget at this point," he said.

Like many architecture firms today, WTW incorporates environmentally friendly aspects to its designs, such as recycling materials and conserving water and electricity, said De Young.

"We have more LEED gold projects than anything else," he said, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. "Often, a client will challenge us to do a silver certification, and we strive to make it gold."

For instance, Fecik said Duquesne's student housing project is "within a few points of being able to get gold."

Additional Information:

WTW Architects Inc.

Business: Architectural firm

Headquarters: North Shore

Employees: 47

Revenue: $11 million in 2010

Top executives:

• Richard De Young, CEO

• Richard Bamburak, executive vice president

• Paul Knell, executive vice president

• Harold Colker, treasurer

• Bryant Robey, secretary

Founded: 1959


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